Bristol Warren school committee pits arts against academics
After much debate and discussion between school committee members and members of the Mt. Hope High School arts department, the question remains: which activities are performed as part of a curriculum, and which are considered to be extra-curricular activities?
The lengthy debate was raised by school committee members when the group was asked to review and approve the school’s programs of study for the 2013-2014 academic year. As stated in the Mt. Hope student handbook, “any student receiving one failing grade shall be placed on academic probation. Students on probation will be prohibited from participating in athletic competitions/games, and all or any extra-curricular contests, competitions, concerts, plays, special events, trips or appearances sponsored by an extra-curricular school club/organization, etc.”
After reviewing the program of studies, some school committee members questioned why members of performing arts programs — marching band, chorus, vocal ensembles and theater — would still be allowed to participate in performances when they were not achieving passing grades in another area of study.
School committee member Karen Lynch said her son was prohibited from participating in a DECA activity — a marketing program or club — due to poor grades. She wants to see the same rules apply to band members.
“It is not your right to perform, it is a privilege to perform,” she said, comparing band members to a football player who is sidelined due to grades.
Bob Arsenault, chairman of the Mt. Hope High School music department, said the rules do apply to music students.
“The football player is not getting any (academic) credit for it. They’re doing it because they like it,” Mr. Arsenault said. “The performance is a part of the curriculum. It’s an academic requirement that they participate.”
Committee member Marjorie McBride disagreed and reiterated her concern expressed at the Jan. 14 workshop. There, she brought up a concern with the language related to the music curriculum with the use of the words ‘will perform’ indicating mandatory extracurricular activities in order to pass a music course. That, she said, contradicts the current policy in the student handbook which states if a student is failing a class, they cannot participate in any extracurricular activities. In her opinion, students who enjoy art classes but are failing an academic class shouldn’t be allowed to “go to a performance or throw pots.”
“I think that’s a very gray area,” she said. “We’re a learning community. When we’re allowing children to participate in something outside, even when they’re failing, I don’t know how we can call ourselves a learning community. I have an issue with that.”
Lynne Wainwright, in her first-term on the school, also viewed artful performances as extracurricular, reading her position from a two-page written statement. In it, she expressed her concern that Chinese people who value education would scoff at Mt. Hope High School’s practice of allowing a student with an academic ‘F’ grade to participate in anything that is non-academic.
In siding with the arts teachers, William O’Dell took the perspective that barring a child from participation in a graded performance activity because they are doing poorly in an academic class “violates the principle of No Child Left Behind,” and sends the message that “you must be successful in everything you do” which he believes sets an unrealistic expectation.
“It takes away another avenue for a student to get a problem solved,” he said.
In his view, it doesn’t make sense to keep a student from doing an activity they are successful at, because they are not as successful in another activity.
After listening to the debate, school committee chairman Paul Silva tried to use a different analogy.
“I don’t think we would be telling a child he can’t take a math test because he’s failing an English class,” he said, supporting the view that performances are part of the curriculum.
In an attempt to redirect the committee to stay within the scope of their responsibilities, he added that the task set before the school committee is to “adopt a program of studies, not write it.” That position was shared by Superintendent Melinda Thies.
“What is disturbing to me is that we’re pitting one content area against the other,” Ms. Thies said of the comparisons drawn between academics and the arts. “I rely on my experts.”
To facilitate the decision to vote on the program of studies or move to withdraw it from the agenda as suggested by Mr. Silva, the school district’s solicitor, Benjamin Scungio, gave his legal opinion.
“It’s not within the purview of the school committee to develop the curriculum,” Mr. Scungio advised. “If you don’t like these types of classes, cut the classes, get rid of them.”
Hearing the views of those who don’t view performance as part of the curriculum assessment, Mr. Scungio gave them another option.
“Maybe you shouldn’t have any performance classes in the district,” he said.
“If that’s what I have to do, I will,” Ms. McBride said.
The language used in the music curriculum descriptions and being debated only now has gone unchanged for a dozen years, according to Mr. Arsenault. He didn’t know why it was being questioned now.
Mt. Hope’s principal, Donald Rebello, asked the school committee to adopt the program of study and leave it up to him and his staff of professional educators and curriculum developers to ensure that appropriate guidelines are followed. If the school committee wished to continue the conversation, Mr. Rebello asked that it be re-visited early on in the process next year, rather than wait until the programs were before them for approval.
The 2013-2014 programs of study were approved 7-1. Ms. McBride voted against. John Saviano was absent from the meeting.